Aug 18, 2014

    Excuse me, can I bite you?

    AFTER every National Day Parade (NDP), I am always overcome with pride for my adopted country.

    I'd shout: "I want to be just like them on TV! I want to drive a military tank around Marina Bay!"

    No, I don't really say that. I haven't updated my driving licence yet and, to be honest, I wouldn't trust myself with a military bugle.

    But, after the NDP, I really did announce to the family that in Singapore's 50th year, I will learn Mandarin. They struggled to contain their indifference.

    My daughter continued to beat me at Connect Four. My wife refused to look up from her Farm Heroes. They have heard all this before.

    Put simply, Singapore has always made me feel like the monolingual moron that I am.

    Whether it is Mandarin, Malay, Tamil or any other local language that I cannot speak, my monolingualism is met with a polite eye roll from friends as they kindly point out to the drinks seller that (a) I am a monolingual speaker trying too hard to integrate, and (b) I am asking for lime juice, not to sleep with his daughter.

    When I first arrived in Singapore in 1996, I started on Malay for two reasons. Like English, it is based on the Latin alphabet. And, second, I lived with a terrifying landlady who spoke only three languages - Tamil, Malay and swearing.

    I figured I should know two out of the three.

    But S. League footballers used to make fun of my jarring "jalan jalan" rojak, a mishmash of a foreign language, and I gave up sheepishly.

    So I moved on to Mandarin, which is a bit like saying I couldn't handle a sampan, so I moved on to steering an oil tanker through a storm.

    Learning Mandarin in Singapore, no matter how noble the intention, always leads to the same two-line conversation:

    "How are you today?"

    "Wrong tone."

    "I want hor fun."

    "Wrong tone."

    "Did you know that antidisestablishmentarianism is not actually the longest word in the English language? There is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, which is a disease of the lungs, probably caused by people trying to say the word. What do you think of that?"

    "Wrong tone."

    Of course, this isn't the only reaction. Sometimes, people "ahh" sweetly in that patronising way, like you do when you meet the wheezy kid who really can't play football but refuses to give up, even when he smacks a shot at the goal and ends up taking out a distant pigeon.

    Coffee-shop aunties are usually the most encouraging. Whenever possible, I try to order in Mandarin at the economy-rice stalls because it is always encouraging to have strangers laugh in my face.

    But on the rare occasion my "I want white rice" comes out almost understandable, I find myself rewarded with an audience with the world's fastest Mandarin speaker who has more stories to share than a Chinese soap opera.

    She could be praising my efforts to learn Mandarin. She could be telling me that her husband is about to have a vasectomy.

    I have no idea. I just smile politely and avoid looking at her chicken frankfurters.

    But at least she is positive. The tekan-ing can be tough when it comes to eager Mandarin learners, particularly adult ones.

    My ears are hopeless. Mandarin's four tones are wasted on me.

    When someone says "I want you" in Mandarin, they say "Wo yao ni". When I say it, I somehow say "I bite you", which really doesn't help me unless I am Luis Suarez.

    To make it even harder, meanings can change almost entirely with different tones.

    Frankly, it wouldn't surprise me if "I need to go to the supermarket to buy some groceries" became "I need to take you to East Coast Park after dark and make some babies".

    There is something deeply disturbing going on with those tones. It is as if the language's original creators sat together and decided: "Let's make 'I want you' sound almost the same as 'I bite you'. That'll show those blur foreigners when they try and impress the girls at Clarke Quay."

    But I am not giving up this time.

    Wrong Tone Humphreys is persevering with Mandarin in Singapore's 50th year.

    I certainly won't be fluent by the next NDP, but I will be able to bite you properly.